Military history

5. PRIMUS IN CARTHAGO

“Go for the Swine with a Blithe Heart”

FROM the tall windows of his corner office in the Hôtel St. Georges, Eisenhower stared out at a city going about its business with little regard to war. The shrill whine of electric trolleys muffled the muezzins’ call to prayer and the chatter of schoolgirls in blue uniforms pouring from the École Ste. Geneviève. In the salon de coiffure outside the hotel’s front entrance, Arabs worked their worry beads and sipped coffee with extended pinky fingers; the solitary barber’s chair displayed a manufacturer’s stamp showing it had been made in St. Louis. Algerian cavalrymen clopped past on their white chargers, followed by an open truck with bandaged soldiers just arrived from Tunisia. In the hotel corridors squads of barefoot, broom-wielding Arab women whisked furiously at muddy bootprints, to small effect. The rich odor of Thanksgiving dinner wafted from the St. Georges dining room: roasted peacock, cabbage, and peas, served with a credible Algerian rosé.

For officers long trapped in Gibraltar’s subterranean gloom—such wraiths were marked by their pallor and hacking coughs—sunny Algiers offered a pleasant respite. Purple bougainvillea, pink oleander, and bright blue plumbago lent the city a Tropic of Cancer palette. Eisenhower was happier than most to escape the Rock; the damp lingered in his bones, afflicting him with a catarrh that would linger for months. The commander-in-chief had intended to move his headquarters on November 10 or 11, but loitered until November 23 because the undersea cable from Gibraltar gave him better communications to Britain and the United States than he would have in Algiers. That propinquity now seemed like a mixed blessing. “How weary I am of this long-distance essay contest with London and Washington,” he had written Clark on November 20. A day later he added, “I’ve been pounded all week from the rear. Sometimes it seems that none of us in the field can do anything to the satisfaction of Washington and London.”

He was hardly out of reach in Algiers, but the War Department and Downing Street seemed far more distant, if only because communications remained primitive. In the signal offices at the east end of the St. Georges’s second floor, cryptographic machines were balanced on a wooden frame over a bathtub. The British code room occupied a cramped Quonset hut in the garden, while American coding and teletype operators worked among the scattered ottomans and brass tables in the hotel lounge.

Eisenhower’s own office was spare but functional. Three hotel bedrooms and a sitting room at the end of a long corridor had been converted into a suite. The many windows admitted ample light, but the only heat in the old hotel came from a few small fireplaces, which left him and his staff scented with wood smoke. Nights in the St. Georges could be bitter, especially for soldiers temporarily housed on the hallway floors. The hotel shook violently during the frequent attacks by German bombers against the nearby port and airfields. After a sleepless first night in the office, Eisenhower, who had since moved his sleeping quarters to a more isolated villa, fumed at the limp Allied air defenses and berated his air commanders for their inadequacies.

A few days before leaving Gibraltar, Eisenhower had proposed limiting his headquarters to 150 officers. “Am particularly anxious that we strip down to a working basis and cut down on all of the folderol,” he told Clark. Algiers was to be a temporary billet, with Allied Forces Headquarters moving closer to the battlefield in a couple of months. But already AFHQ was expanding wildly. Within a fortnight, the headquarters would occupy nearly 400 offices scattered through eleven buildings. Three hundred officers now devoured as much meat as rationing allocated to 15,000 French civilians. Eisenhower’s signal officer proposed that the formula for staffing a headquarters should be “a reasonable estimate, multiplied by five.” AFHQ would remain in Algiers for years, expanding into a “huge, chairborne force” of more than 1,000 officers and 15,000 enlisted troops occupying 2,000 pieces of real estate. A popular aphorism soon circulated among frontline troops: “Never were so few commanded by so many from so far.” Asked why the Germans failed to bomb AFHQ headquarters, a cynical American major replied, “Because it’s worth fifty divisions to them.”

Algiers already showed the strains of occupation. So many electric razors buzzed in the morning that they interfered with radio transmissions. Prostitutes working the Aletti Hotel now charged £10 sterling per trick. A French newspaper began printing English-language lessons, including the sentence: “No, sir, I am married, and I am hurrying home where my husband is awaiting me.” In Oran, officers in their pinks-and-greens ate in a mess with green leather chairs while musicians in evening dress played Big Band melodies. A supply major proposed creating a medal inscribed “Valor, Patience, Indigestion,” which would be awarded for exemplary “paperwork connected with the social struggle.”

Oranges that had been fifteen cents a bushel in Algiers jumped to fifteen cents a dozen. Beer went from two cents a schooner to a dollar. Nightclubs with names like La Belle Rose and Bucket of Blood were always jammed, while battalion sergeant majors inspected various brothels and chose several of the least odious for licensing. Discovering huge wine barrels awaiting export on the wharves, soldiers tapped them with rifle fire and caught the drainage in their canteen cups; a drunken brawl led to a waterfront firefight suppressed by military policemen who then disarmed all dockworkers. Indiscipline overwhelmed the military justice system: in Oran alone, hundreds of American soldiers had been arrested for various infractions in the two weeks after the invasion, but less than 2 percent of them were prosecuted. A summary court was established to restore order; nearly 300 soldiers would be tried in the first part of December, with a total of 9 acquittals. A third of the cases involved drunkenness. Serious offenses drew harsh sentences: four years for a self-inflicted gunshot to the big toe to avoid combat; eight years at hard labor for kicking a superior officer; life in prison for a soldier who shot and killed an Algerian woman with his rifle.

There was folderol aplenty, despite Eisenhower’s wishes, and it all rested on the commander-in-chief’s squared shoulders. Many of the distractions were fatuous. A rumor in Arab neighborhoods that Eisenhower was a Jew sent by the Jew Roosevelt to establish a Jewish state in North Africa required a leaflet campaign stressing the general’s German Protestant ancestry. The War Department tried to inflate his dignity by urging reporters not to refer to him as “Ike,” and thus ensured that the nickname would stick forever. Ever eager to see his own name in headlines, Clark gave an interview full of breezy predictions about the imminent fall of Tunis and Bizerte; Eisenhower had killed the story just before leaving Gibraltar. Draconian censorship was soon imposed, with correspondents advised that no dispatches would be allowed that made people at home feel unhappy. Equally rigorous censorship of letters home inspired one soldier to write his parents:

After leaving where we were before we left for here, not knowing we were coming here from there, we couldn’t tell whether we had arrived here or not. Nevertheless, we now are here and not there. The weather here is just as it always is at this season. The people here are just like they look.

On this page a censor scribbled simply, “Amen.”

In a message on November 22, Churchill voiced hopes that Eisenhower had “not been too much preoccupied with the political aspect.” As for the Germans in Tunisia, the prime minister advised, “Go for the swine with a blithe heart.” But blitheness was hard to come by. “It seems difficult for people at home…to understand that we are in a dirty battle, with Germans pouring into Tunisia and with us having need for every man we can get to the front,” Eisenhower wrote Clark. To Beetle Smith he added, “My whole interest is Tunisia.”

In truth, he spent at least three-quarters of his time worrying about political issues, and that preoccupation poorly served the Allied cause. Had he shunted aside all distractions to focus on seizing Tunis with a battle captain’s fixed purpose, the coming months might have been different. But a quarter-century as a staff officer, with a staff officer’s meticulous attention to detail and instinctive concern for pleasing his superiors, did not slough away easily. Eisenhower had yet to bend events to his iron will, to impose as well as implore, to become a commander in action as well as in rank.

No distraction tormented him more than the French. While disdainful of “these Frogs” and their “morbid sense of honor,” he remained convinced that French cooperation was critical to civil order and equivalent to ten divisions in safeguarding Allied supply lines. General Giraud, who now commanded all French forces in North Africa, still routinely requested control over all Allied troops as well. Eisenhower considered him “volatile rather than stable,” a megalomaniac who “knows no more about logistics than a dog about religion.”

But the commander-in-chief lacked the confidence or stature to insist that French soldiers—many of whom now wore decorations awarded for resisting the Anglo-American invaders—cooperate fully with General Anderson. As a result, the movement of troops and supplies to the front, as well as the assault on the enemy bridgehead, remained ill coordinated. Particularly suspect were French troops in Tunisia whose families lived in the German occupation zone; a single battalion reported 132 desertions. Many troops were worse equipped than those who had fought seventy years earlier in the Franco-Prussian War. A French soldier claimed his boot soles were so thin he could step on a wad of chewing gum and tell the flavor; some colonial soldiers had no boots at all, although their bare feet were so dirty they looked shod. Yet French supply requests to the Americans included large quantities of table and bed linen, china, and gold braid for officers’ uniforms.

More distracting by far was the public outcry at home over the “Darlan deal.” The North African political morass was “covered like a Tammany scandal by most of the American press,” one correspondent acknowledged, and a scandal it had become. The Allied marriage of convenience with the quisling Darlan was deemed a sordid betrayal of fundamental united nations’ principles. “What the hell is this all about? Are we fighting Nazis or sleeping with them?” asked Edward R. Murrow, the most influential broadcaster in America.

British public and parliamentary opinion was even more intense. Eisenhower’s aide Harry Butcher wrote in his diary that Darlan was considered “a stinking skunk” in London. The British Foreign Office cabled its embassy in Washington, “We are fighting for international decency and Darlan is the antithesis of this.” The outrage was fed by the adroit public relations apparatus of Charles de Gaulle’s London-based Free French, which demonized Darlan relentlessly.

Darlan’s repressive actions as high commissioner hardly mollified his critics. Thousands were imprisoned in North African camps, including men who had helped the Anglo-American invaders. The anti-Semitic laws of Vichy remained in effect for fear of provoking the Arabs. Four hundred press censors now worked for Darlan, and BBC broadcasts were jammed, so that North Africans failed to hear allegations that 500 pounds of hoarded coffee and 800 pounds of sugar had been confiscated at the admiral’s home in metropolitan France.

Eisenhower averted his gaze. In a Thanksgiving Day note he told Patton, “We did not come here to interfere in someone else’s business. We are on a military mission.” He became defensive and shrill. “We are making the best of a rather bad bargain,” he informed Marshall, and to the combined chiefs he added, “I realize that there may be a feeling at home that we have been sold a bill of goods,” but Darlan offered “the only possible workable arrangement for securing advantages and avoiding disadvantages.” At times his exasperation boiled over. “The authorities in London and Washington continue to suffer a bit from delusion as to the extent of our military control over this country,” he told Smith. “It will be a long time before we can get up on our high horse and tell everybody in the world to go to hell.”

Roosevelt had authorized the Darlan deal, but in his public statement supporting it he used the word “temporary” five times. Sensing the impermanence of his utility to the Allies, Darlan wrote Eisenhower on November 21: “Information coming from various parts tends to give credit to the opinion that I am but a lemon which the Americans will drop after it is crushed.”

All this was folderol of the most noxious sort, and it both preoccupied Eisenhower and preyed on him. “For Christ’s sake, do you think I want to talk politics? Goddam it, I hate ’em,” he declared. “I’m sick to death of this goddam political question.” Although he had no way of knowing that Roosevelt harbored private doubts about his commanding general’s judgment, Eisenhower sensed that he, too, was expendable. Referring to his permanent, pre-war rank—to which he would return if cashiered as a three-star general—he once muttered, “Tell [Roosevelt] I am the best damn lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.” He was particularly incensed by unfair suggestions in the newspapers that his indifference to civil liberties made him a fascist (as he pronounced it, “fatchist”). In his long career of public service, his skin would never be thinner nor his temper more volatile than it was in Algiers in the winter of 1942. Press criticism particularly was a chafing new experience for military officers accustomed to anonymity in a peacetime army. “I’m no reactionary!” Eisenhower exploded after a flurry of accusatory articles. “Christ on the mountain! I’m idealistic as hell!”

At the end of a very long day he returned to Villa dar el Ouard—“Villa of the Family”—for some supper. Axis bombers had again knocked out the heat, gas, and water, forcing an orderly to cook over an open wood fire in the dining room hearth. The tessellated stone floor was as cold as a meat locker. The drafty villa had seven bedrooms, a library with a Ping-Pong table, and a music room with a grand piano. Sometimes Eisenhower picked out “Chopsticks” or joined his staff in belting out West Point songs or cowboy tunes. On more somber evenings, however, he put a record on the phonograph and listened to his favorite passage from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, “Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie,” also known as the Anvil Chorus. The villa echoed with the sound of singing Gypsies working their forge. Eisenhower’s Scottie puppy, Telek, newly arrived from London, chased his own tail round and round.

Even an officer as strong and selfless as Eisenhower at times felt overwhelmed. “It would be idle of me to say that I have not felt some degree of strain,” he had written Marshall a few days earlier. One acquaintance described him as a “lonely man who worried, worried, worried.” Eisenhower rarely yielded to self-pity, but occasionally a bitter tone crept into his letters, as when he told General Arnold, “I have literally slaved like a dog.” The Darlan uproar eclipsed the extraordinary accomplishments of his soldiers inTORCH, and he regretted that.

He regretted, too, not devoting himself more robustly to the battle for Tunisia. “I live ten years each week, of which at least nine are absorbed in political and economic matters,” he told Marshall. Some British generals, who were to supply three-quarters of the combat troops in Tunisia, had growing reservations about a man who had never led a battalion in action but now commanded armies.

“Eisenhower far too busy with political matters…. Not paying enough attention to the Germans,” Brooke, the British Army chief, would write in his diary on December 7. Eisenhower possessed charm, an evenhanded knack for uniting allies, and “more than his share of luck,” Brooke conceded. But he seemed “unable to grasp the urgency of pushing on to Tunis before Germans build up their resistance there.” Eisenhower had no illusions about his responsibilities. Harry Butcher wrote in his diary entry for Thanksgiving Day: “The whole thing in Algiers and to the east needs vigorous coordination that only Ike himself can arrange.”

The low moan of air raid sirens sounded. Above Algiers harbor he could see crimson anti-aircraft shells coiling into a purple sky crisscrossed with tracers and searchlight beams. Every gun battery and warship within ten miles appeared to be firing. Smoke generators around the port churned out an oily fudge that blanketed parts of the city. Barrage fire and smoke were the only real defenses. Of the mere half-dozen Allied fighters available to intercept enemy planes at night over Algiers, three had been destroyed on the ground by Axis bombs or shot down by overzealous Allied gunners.

Concussions rattled the windows. Eisenhower would have his air commanders on the carpet again tomorrow; among other consequences, bumbling air defenses threatened to provoke a revolt by terrified French and Arab civilians. He walked into the master bedroom at the back of the villa. Fragments of spent anti-aircraft shells rattled on the roof like hailstones.

To his son, John, at West Point, Eisenhower had recently written, “I hope that you occasionally are brushing up on your Mediterranean geography because some day I will want to talk over this campaign with you and get your ideas as to whether or not we did it correctly.” But for the moment the general was tired of thinking large thoughts. From a stack of paperbacks next to his bed he plucked a pulp Western and for a few placid minutes lost himself in a world of rustlers and cowpokes and dance-hall doxies before drifting off to sleep.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!